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Mind Over Marathon: The Psychology of Running

Months of physical training will be put to the test this weekend as more than 20,000 runners set out to compete in the Fitbit Miami Marathon and Half Marathon [1]. With running gear in place and muscles in tip-top shape, what else do marathoners need to meet the challenge of finishing a 13.1 or 26.2 mile course?

“A marathon is an endurance event that puts tremendous stress on the body and mind,” said Michael Swartzon, M.D. [2], a sports medicine physician with Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute [3] and co-medical director of the Miami Marathon. “As a runner, strong mental conditioning can give you what you need to push through.”

Preparing Mentally for a Marathon

Top performance in any sport also demands mental fitness and training. To help participants prepare mentally for the race, Baptist Health South Florida is hosting a “Drop It” or “Hang it Up” exhibit at the marathon’s expo. Writing down fears or challenges, then dropping the paper in a box or hanging it on a board, is intended to help runners calm their nerves, commonly referred to as pre-race “jitters.”

Writing or sharing feelings has proven benefits. A research study [4] by psychologists at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), showed differences in brain activity in people who labeled and verbalized feelings such as anger and fear. The people who wrote or talked about their feelings had increased activity in the part of the brain that regulates emotions. As a result, they felt calmer.

What about mental focus during the race? In an event that takes most marathon runners about 4 ½ hours to complete, how do they stay in “the zone” mentally to meet their goals and cross the finish line?

Most of the time marathoners think about their pace and distance, says research [5] published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The study of long-distant runners found thinking about how to slow down or speed up occupies marathoners’ minds 40 percent of the time.

Thoughts about pain and discomfort the runners were feeling made up 32 percent of their thoughts.

And 28 percent of their thoughts focused on the environment in which they were running, including the weather, geography and people or animals encountered along the route.

Being able to ignore some of the thoughts focused on what’s going on inside their body is what helps endurance athletes, like marathoners, perform to their full potential, says Charles Brown, Ph.D., a renowned sport psychologist. He works with U.S. Olympic athletes and has published various professional articles related to sport performance enhancement and mental skills.

Peak performance requires that the person be present in the moment and have an absence of self-consciousness, Dr. Brown explains. In other words, they need to focus on what he or she is doing, rather than how it is being done. When an athlete’s attention turns away from the activity at hand, worry and anxiety can result, he says.

The power of positivity also plays a key role in marathoners’ success. One of the top mental roadblocks for runners is pessimism, a study at the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University found.  “Negativity, whether it’s worry or doubt, often leads to self-defeating behaviors including slowing down or dropping out of a race,” the center’s director said in a Runner’s World article [6].

Using effective mental coping skills are also helpful in preventing physical injury. Athletes who use a coping behavior of “self-blame” are more likely to become injured, according to a study [7] published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.